Road To The White House Goes Through Michigan

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There is a battle underway on the presidential campaign trail over Michigan's economic recovery. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney says President Obama is given too much credit for helping the domestic auto industry. President Obama has made the auto industry's turnaround a central point of his re-election campaign.

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George Orwell once said that those who control the past, control the future. If you can revise history to fit your point of view, it gives you power. So, it should be no surprise that presidential candidates are struggling over some recent history - the auto bailout.

They want to tell the story in very different ways. Mitt Romney says President Obama gets too much credit for the bailout, and says a key step in it was his idea. President Obama promotes the bailout as a central point of his campaign. And his backers say Mitt Romney actually stood in the way.

Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta has the story.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: 2008, an economic meltdown...

RICK PLUTA, BYLINE: President Obama's campaign is airing a one-minute ad in nine battleground states.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Today, our auto industry is back.

PLUTA: The surge in manufacturing hiring, a profitable Chrysler and General Motors. The Obama campaign says that's proof an economic recovery is underway and the president's policies are working. Mitt Romney, the president's all-but-nominated Republican opponent challenged that claim during a swing through the industrial Midwest.

In an interview with an Ohio TV station, Romney said the strategy behind the auto rescue was actually his idea.

MITT ROMNEY: That was the right course I argued for from the very beginning. It was the UAW and the president that delayed the idea of bankruptcy. I pushed the idea of a managed bankruptcy, and finally when that was done and help was given, the companies got back on their feet. So I'll take a lot of credit for the fact that this industry's come back.

PLUTA: That assertion through a rapid and fierce response from unions and Democrats. Romney did argue for bankruptcy, but opposed government loans to the auto companies. Then Romney was on to Michigan, where his father George Romney was an automotive executive before he became a popular governor in the 1960s. At Lansing Community College, Mitt Romney said any success under what he repeatedly called the Obama economy, is weak compared to what might have been.

ROMNEY: I'm convinced if we take an entirely direction in energy and in trade policy and in labor policy, we're going to see more manufacturing jobs come back to American than those that have left America. I'm absolutely convinced of this.

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PLUTA: Tom Hammond, a flooring business owner, says he was glad to hear Romney supports right-to-work laws that bar compulsory union dues and membership.

TOM HAMMOND: You know, the union chases a lot of these jobs away. I live down south and the people down south would say, bring those jobs to us. We'll take 'em. Hot dog.

PLUTA: Outside, a group of anti-Romney demonstrators held a banner that read: Let Detroit go bankrupt. That was the title of a New York Times op-ed written by Romney that Michigan Democrats bring up at every opportunity. At one end of the banner stood Maggie Bayers, a utility worker who says she doesn't trust Romney.

MAGGIE BAYERS: He's taking credit for the rebound of Michigan's auto industry by wanting it to fail. I don't quite understand that.

PLUTA: 1988 was the last year a Republican presidential nominee won Michigan, but Michigan is not a locked-in blue state. Voters choose plenty of Republicans in statewide races, including Governor Rick Snyder in 2010. Holly Hughes is state lawmaker and a Republican National Committeewoman for Michigan. She says the state is worth Romney's attention.

HOLLY HUGHES: If we win Michigan, we win the presidency.

PLUTA: Hughes says Michigan is an attainable prize for Republicans.

HUGHES: Everybody wants it. It's a huge state, and if you win this part, it gives you an indication that you're going to win this region of the country as well.

PLUTA: Both the Obama and Romney campaigns say they intend to fight for Michigan come November. The significance of Michigan's story and who gets to tell it could matter just as much as its 16 electoral votes.

For NPR News, I'm Rick Pluta in Lansing, Michigan.

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